At some point or another, almost all of us have experienced our furry friends lapping at us with their tongues, but exactly why do dogs lick your face? What -if anything- are they trying to tell us, and is it even safe to allow your pop to give you those big, wet, slobbery canine kisses in the first place?
The truth is that there are lots of reasons why your dog may decide that now’s a good time to lick you.
As with many things relating to our dog’s behavior, some of those reasons are simply part of their genetics, so deeply embedded in the canine DNA from the days when their wolf ancestors roamed wild and had to fend for themselves.
Others are more social. If your dog is anything like yours, you’ll most likely get a lot of licks when you’ve returned home after being gone for several hours. Unsurprisingly, given the close bond between the two of you, Fido is so happy to see you he simply can’t help but shower you with affection.
And, of course, others are more practical reasons and are simply their best attempt at getting their needs met since they can’t communicate in the same way that you or I do.
Below, we’ll explain all of the more common reasons why dogs lick your face in more detail and explain everything you should know about how to respond when your beloved companion decides it’s time to give you a very different kind of tongue lashing.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Face?
Wanting to be Fed
For most dog breeds, the act of licking the face is something that they’ve inherited from their ancestors through their DNA.
When packs of dogs are out in the wild, the younger pups will often lick the pack leader’s face as a way of signaling that they’re hungry.
Even domesticated dogs will do this to some extent. Puppies have a tendency to lick at their mom’s face which triggers a regurgitation reflex. Mom will then regurgitate partially-digested food into their young one’s mouths to feed them.
Obviously, you don’t have to chew your pup’s food for them, but if you find they’re getting particularly friendly around feeding time, that might be a good indication that it’s time to fill up their doggy bowl.
Out in the wild, licking the pack leader’s face isn’t just to beg for food, it’s to show that he acknowledges and respects that leader’s status as the head of the pack.
In your home, your dog could be licking your face for very much the same reason. It’s one way to show you that they respect you as the leader of their pack and are treating you as such.
When our dogs do start to lick our faces, most of us think of it as their way of giving us kisses but is there any truth to that, or is it just another example of us attributing human characteristics to them much like we do when we say our dogs are smiling?
Actually, there is a lot to be said for face-licking as a sign of affection. Licking is often one of the first sensations your cute little pup will ever experience. Before they can even so much as open their eyes to the world, their mom will lick in order to groom them, encourage them to urinate, and simply to strengthen that maternal bond.
So, before they know much of anything about the world, your dog knows that licking shows caring and affection. This becomes even more apparent to them when they and their brothers and sisters lick one another as a means of building up their bond even further.
So when your dog stops to lick your face, they’re doing very much the same thing: They’re showing you that they care for you.
Notice how they don’t lick the faces of people or other pooches they don’t like? That’s the reason why.
Keeping You Clean
Remember when you were a child and your mother would lick her thumb and use it to rub the grubbiness away from your face? That might be just what your companion is doing when they start licking you.
As we’ve already mentioned, pups learn from their mothers that licking is an effective way of grooming those they care about to ensure that they’re healthy and happy.
Understandably, since your pup cares about you, they want to ensure you’re healthy and happy too, so it’s not uncommon for them to start putting their tongue to work in keeping you clean.
Working Out How You’re Feeling
Sometimes, your dog may simply be trying to get close to you to figure out how you’re doing.
The old adage that dogs can smell fear is very much a real thing. They can also work out if you’re happy, sad, or exciting thanks to their remarkable olfactory system and receptors in their mouth. They can sense from the smell and taste of your sweat whether you’re afraid, nervous, or just plain happy.
Knowing that it may be that they’re licking you to simply figure out if you need some comforting puppy cuddles, or maybe if you’re in the mood to go get their leash and take them for a walk.
Enjoying the Way You Taste
Yes, it might sound a little odd to us humans to think that our faces taste good, but it’s perfectly normal to our furry friends. There’s something about the saltiness of our sweat that they enjoy, so they may be just helping themselves to a tasty treat. Or it may be that they can smell that delicious snack you’ve been eating and want to get a little bit of it for themselves!
Frequently Asked Questions
Of course it is. If you and your dog are both healthy and well, there’s hardly any harm at all in allowing a dog to lick your face. The exception to this is if you have an open wound. Though it’s usually harmless in most circumstances, bacteria from canine saliva can cause an infection if it gets into an open wound.
The good news is that instances of this happening are very rare indeed. There’s usually no more than 10-15 cases per year of people getting sick from dog saliva. In those cases where this does occur, it’s usually only in humans with an already compromised immune system where the bacteria known as Capnocytophaga gets into their system via an open wound.
If you don’t mind puppy kisses in general but just don’t like their tongue over your mouth, the easiest thing to do is simply turn your head and offer them a different part of your face to lick. Our pup has no problem at all if we offer it a cheek to lick rather than our lips, though some pet owners prefer to offer the neck or underside of the chin.
If you don’t want your dog licking your face at all, the best approach is to simply not give it any attention when it does so. The more you acknowledge the licking, the more your dog learns that it can get your attention this way, and the more they’ll keep doing it.
As such, it might be better to try and teach them other ways to display their love and affection for you.
Golden retrievers, labradors, and Pitbulls are all well-known lickers, as are smaller pups like poodles and chihuahuas.
As you’ll no doubt know by now, there are many more reasons why dogs lick your face than simply wanting to shower you with kisses.
While it’s certainly true that all those big, wet, sloppy smooches can be a sign of affection, it’s also true that your buddy might be licking you as a not-so-subtle hint that they’re ready for dinner, or because they simply like the way your face tastes.
Alternatively, it might just be that they want to check out how you’re feeling. Remember, our furry friends are a lot smarter than some people give them credit for. If they sense something’s the matter, putting those remarkable nasal receptors to work can quickly confirm their suspicions and they’ll know that they either need to be gentle with you and give you lots of cuddles, or go get their ball and get you to play with them.
Either way, as long as you don’t let them lick in or around any open wounds, those cute, playful puppy kisses can be one way of letting your canine companion show you that he loves you every bit as much as you love him.
Forrest is a lover of dogs, the wild outdoors, deep mysterious conversations… and coffee. He is the owner of several websites, including Canine Weekly. He resides in Austin, Texas.